Lunch & Learn: Exploring the Lost Cause through Virginia’s Confederate Monuments

Here’s historian John Coski of the American Civil War Museum giving a lunchtime presentation at the museum on confederate monuments in Virginia, telling us how to analyze these monuments and figure out what they mean to us and what they meant to those who erected them. This is a great presentation to help us put monuments into historical perspective.

The video’s description reads, “Have you ever thought about ‘reading’ a monument? In this presentation, Museum Historian John Coski demonstrates how Virginia’s Confederate monuments reveal the choices made by memorialists as they decided how and what to remember about the Civil War–and what to forget. Find out how the Lost Cause was shaped in part by these works in stone.”

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13 comments

  1. I enjoyed the discussion of the monuments, but not the politics.

    John Coski’s answer to the penultimate questioner made the invidious comparison been African Americans who want to move or remove statues and various totalitarians. Coski says:

    “We are not the like the Soviet Union we are not like the Taliban. We do not destroy monuments. That has been our tendency as a people.”

    Coski adds that after the Charleston shootings, demands for removal have been on the rise and that; “We may as a nation take a step to be more like the Taliban more like the Soviet Union.”

    Why make this sort of invidious comparison?

    Plenty of peoples around the world have removed or destroyed symbols of old regimes that they considered oppressive. Nazi and Stalinist monumentation came down all over Eastern Europe within our lifetimes. Americans knocked down a statue of King George in NYC 230 years ago, and a statue of Saddam 13 years ago.

    Black Lives Matter is not the Taliban.

    Also, Coski says that “balancing the landscape” by putting up new monuments to people like Thurgood Marshall and Arthur Ashe is the “more American solution.” In fact though, if we look at actual American Civil War monumentation patterns, we see that monuments in a particular area tend to reflect a unified narrative. We see a lot of monuments to white Confederates in the South, not a broad mixture of monuments to blacks, white unionists, and Northern soldiers. In fact, Coski himself pointed out that until the Lincoln statue was recently placed at the ACWC, there were no statues to Northern figures in Richmond. In reality, the “American solution” over the last 150 years at least has been hegemonically white Confederate. Also, with over 1,000 Confederate monuments in the South, and only a beleaguered handful of statues with alternative narratives, how long before every Roger Taney statue gets its Thurgood Marshall counterpoint? At the current rate, we should see rough parity in 300 years.

    1. I agree with you, Paat. Also, who’s going to pay for all the monuments needed to “balance the landscape?” It’s all well and good to assume an unlimited source of money to pay for all those monuments, but it’s quite another thing to translate that to the real world.

  2. John Stoudt · · Reply

    Pat:

    Before I ask my question let me say that I have enjoyed learning from your comments here and on other blogs. I respect your opinion, and I am not emotionally attached to Confederate monuments.

    If you were in a position to decide the fate of one, some, or all Confederate monuments, what would you do with them? Which ones would you keep, move, or destroy?

    I don’t like the idea of destroying monuments, but I will admit that — perhaps — I have not empathized with persons who view them quite differently than me.

    1. I’m not Pat, but my answer would be that it depends on the monument and what its inscription said and what the monument represented. For example, I would have no problem if the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans were leveled. But there are a number of confederate monuments that I believe should be preserved and interpreted. Some perhaps should be moved to a different location. Others perhaps should be left alone.

    2. Thanks for your kind words John.

      I don’t have any list of monuments to move, or interpret, or repurpose, or destroy. I think that that sort of thing is something a local community has to decide. If a statue feels like a symbol of oppression to a community and most folks want it gone, then they should be allowed to remove it without being compared to Joe Stalin.

      I frequently went to court in Federal Plaza in NYC which for a number of years was dominated by a sculpture called “Tilted Arc” by the well-known artist Richard Serra. It was a long metal wall. It made it difficult to get into the courts, took up a lot of space that had been used by Federal workers to picnic, and looked pretty bad. When efforts were made to remove it, a cry went up that the artist’s vision was being destroyed by philistines. Should the statue, once in place, have never been moved? Was it sacred? Ultimately, the answer was “No”. Statuary has to been supported by the community it is placed in if it is to be something that enhances life in the community.

      I have suggested elsewhere that some Confederate monuments might be successfully repurposed to make them symbols of inclusion. In my village on Long Island, the Great War Monument was repurposed to be a monument to those who died in US wars subsequent to World War I. Why not repurpose those Confederate soldier monuments to honor locals who served in the USCT or Southern White Unionist regiments as well as Confederates? This would depoliticize the monuments. The monuments would be symbols to the suffering and sacrifice of all those who lived in the community during the Civil War instead of being emblems of white dominance and of the white community’s ability to control public space.

  3. John Stoudt · · Reply

    Al:

    A case-by-case basis? That sounds reasonable.

  4. John Stoudt · · Reply

    Pat:

    Thanks for your reply. I like the repurposing idea.

  5. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    There’s been quite a change in the direction of the Museum of the Confederacy hasn’t there? The name change (now it’s the American Civil War Museum). A monument to Lincoln at Tredegar. This discussion of monuments, although Coski doesn’t really suggest WHAT should be done. And the other “Lunch and Learn” you suggested which honored three abolitionists. Pretty radical stuff for Richmond and a real change in philosophy from what I saw the last time I visited in 2013. Reminds me of the old Woody Guthrie song, “The Times, They are A-Changin.'”

    1. No real change for the past thirty years that I can tell. The Museum of the Confederacy has had a professional staff devoted to accuracy in history for quite a long time.

  6. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    When I was there in 2013, I saw no exhibits relating to blacks in the Civil War or abolitionists at either site (Richmond or Appomattox). At Tredegar, one of the presenters did mention, rather in passing, that the company relied almost exclusively on slave labor. To me, that’s quite a change in direction.

    1. The Museum of the Confederacy wouldn’t have such exhibits because it was a museum for the confederacy. Those exhibits would be at the American Civil War Center, which is what merged with the Museum of the Confederacy to form the American Civil War Museum. It’s not a change in direction at all. It’s a merger of organizations.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        But it does represent a big change in direction for the Museum of the Confederacy.

        1. Not really. It’s just adding the American Civil War Center and its focus to the Museum of the Confederacy and its focus.

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